Earlier this week, for SB Nation’s “What If?” series, yours truly fired off a few quick thoughts after a Sunday Funday about what a roll of the dice it was when Robert Kraft fired Pete Carroll as head coach of the Patriots after the ‘99 season. And in a move that gives you the same feeling as when your friends have to explain all the shots you bought and all the dumb things you did the night before, a bunch of you guys and girls (correctly) pointed out that I basically just said it was a decision that took some big brass ones from Robert Kraft and then peaced out without actually ever saying what would’ve happened if Carroll had stayed in New England.
You know, kind of the whole point of a “What If?” debate.
So, uh, A) my bad, and B) here’s your applicable Bill Belichick quote of the day.
“I make a lot of mistakes, and sometimes you’re not as quick to recognize your own as somebody else's, or somebody else can recognize yours before you do”
Now that I’ve taken my lap around the field, and since summer is, of course, the season for sequels (not that I had a countdown on my iPhone for months for Jurassic World or anything), let’s do it right this time and really dive into the dystopian future that is the post-1999 Pete Carroll era in New England.
Dystopian? Classic New England attitude, just assuming that something’s probably going to suck, right?
Well, I mean, yes, but also, as a few of you lovely folks pointed out on Monday, not only was Pete Carroll losing more games every year, he was also well on his way to completely losing the team. And this isn’t a Bill Belichick-may-or-may-not-have-made-a-historically-boneheaded-decision-benching-Malcolm Butler-so-maybe-the-players-are-sore “losing the team”, this is a...actually, you know what, let’s let Drew Bledsoe and Willie Mac tell it.
“I think when you look back on it, guys that were there through the bad times where the Patriots hadn’t won and then with Parcells, who was rough and gruff, we went to the Super Bowl,” said Drew Bledsoe, who was the Patriots’ franchise quarterback from 1993 until getting injured in 2001 and losing his starting spot to Tom Brady. “They equated that demeanor with success. So from that standpoint, I could see where there could have been some veterans who had a hard time with that transition.”
Said Willie McGinest, the Patriots’ first-round pick in 1994, ”I think it was a little tough because Parcells drafted me. I’m sure I share the sentiment of a lot of players. We wanted him to stay. I wanted him to be our head coach.
“Some people were probably excited; some people probably not. I know a lot of people probably weren’t big fans of Parcells. That’s what I was used to. Some liked the other person. The one thing you know is Pete’s totally different. If you’re an immature player or didn’t conduct yourself the right way, you could get away with more with Pete. He would discipline you, but you didn’t fear things. Bill was totally different.”
Here’s where this goes from a couple disappointing seasons to full-blown nightmare fuel: instead of Robert Kraft telling Lawyer Milloy “We need a momentum change”, he tells Pete that one bad year and missing the playoffs isn’t going to cost him his job.
One thing’s for sure, even assuming Drew Bledsoe still almost dies on the field against the Jets in 2001, Drew almost certainly would’ve never famously said in a press conference that “I look forward to the chance to compete for my job” after he got cleared to play again. Fresh off a 10-year, $103,000,000 contract, Bledsoe picks up right where he left off with his trademark philosophy of “F*#% that, go out there and sling it”, and after coming just 15 passing yards short of 4,000 in the ‘99 season, Pete Carroll surely isn’t going to mess with a great quarterback situation.
But it’s not, as Californians like Pete are so fond of saying, all good. By 2000, punter Lee Johnson’s surprisingly straightforward take on the team that “I’ve never been a part of a team that had so much talent that was so unsuccessful” runs head-on into the Jager-and-Red-Bull combination of an older roster that costs way more money than they’re actually worth. Remember Pro Bowl tight end Ben Coates and Pro Bowl offensive lineman Bruce Armstrong getting released cause the ‘00 team needed some salary cap breathing room and neither Coates or Armstrong would take a pay cut?
And speaking of playing limbo with the salary cap, let’s also remember that the GM at the time, Bobby Grier, might as well have a seat with his name on it whenever the “Who’s the worst draft pick the Patriots ever made?” conversation gets brought up. Grier’s probably showing up to work one day to find his stuff in a box on a Friday regardless, but GM-coach relationships like Carroll’s current situation with Jon Schneider are like getting dealt pocket aces, not the norm. Combine a few years of, objectively speaking, drafting equivalent to puking on a new pair of Jordans in the late 90s with the Patriots showing up out of shape and overweight, and, well, let’s put it this way: if that team went 5-11 under Bill Belichick, what do they go with Carroll? Surely worse, right? 4-12? 3-13? Shoot, do they join the very exclusive club of (at the time) two post-merger NFL teams to never win a game all season?
At this point, we’re only in YEAR 4 of the Pete Carroll Patriots in this Days of Future Past nightmare world; if the Patriots sucked so badly that they’re winning a number of games that can be counted on one hand, things almost certainly have to get worse before they get better. Even if New England drafts, say, top-10 for the next couple years when every weekend is finding a new way to lose, who’s to say that the Patriots draft future superstars like Richard Seymour and Matt Light in ‘01, or Deion Branch in ‘02?
Ironically, this also means the Patriots are in the almost unheard of position of having an undeniably talented franchise quarterback, locked up on a long-term deal, and still being an objectively terrible football team.
This Scarface-style everything-comes-crashing-down has to last for at least a couple seasons, cause even if you draft the next, I don’t know, Lawrence Taylor or something, one player ain’t gonna save a 4-win team. Let’s be generous and assume Pete Carroll at least has a functional, non-Taylor-Swift relationship with whoever the Patriots GM is at this point and can get players that fit his scheme AND his relentlessly wicked positive coaching style. How long before he gets back to playing .500 football? A winning record? Double-digit wins? Does he ever? Does he do it by ‘04? ‘06?
And how long does Robert Kraft, the Patriots lifetime season ticket holder and superfan, put up with Pete walking into a Super Bowl caliber team in ‘97, taking that roster, and maybe acknowledging that even if the late 90’s Pats WERE one of the best teams of the latter half of the 90s, that the good times don’t last forever? In that above situation where New England hits rock bottom in the early 2000s, even back in the day when NFL owners had more patience with coaches and riding out a couple embarrassing seasons in hopes of eventual greatness, thinking that Carroll could’ve lasted until the latter half of last decade is somewhere between way too positive for your own good and being burned so many times by the awful Patriots teams in history that you just can’t feel feelings anymore.
There’s only one realistic way this travesty, a sham, and a mockery - a traveshamockery, if you will - ends. Unless you’re Marvin Lewis, losing gets you fired. And after almost 10 years of watching his team, his baby, get run into the ground, Robert Kraft puts his Air-Force-One-clad foot down and surely fires Carroll sometime around ‘04 or ‘05.
Oh, you thought that was it? Ever seen 1408 where John Cusack thinks it’s over and then the clock starts over again?
Time to roll the dice on a new coach, again. Maybe a new GM, again. Pray like when you wake up with a raging hangover that they can co-exist and work together without murdering each other. And then, just like when you’re down at the casino, you keep playing till you find something that works.
Some teams spend years doing that dance and never, ever figure it out. There’s still 13 NFL teams that’ve never won a Super Bowl, ever. NFL, more like FML, am I right??
Hey, told you guys it was gonna get dystopian in here.
Anyway, I’m going to go make a sandwich and be grateful that I could be in one of those fantasy football leagues where I win the Sack-O, have to get a tattoo of the Yankees logo or something similarly loathsome, and be like “Eh, we’ve got Belichick and Brady in real life. You guys wish you were this lucky.”